Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What about Syria and Genocide?


A historic conference recently wrapped up at the Vatican that addressed the continued relevance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory.

Just war theory outlines the moral requirements surrounding the decision to use force and the ethical limits on using force justly. The decision to use force requires a just cause, right intention, a reasonable probability of success, and proportionality. It must be undertaken by a legitimate authority and only as a last resort.

The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct during the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm (it is always immoral to directly and intentionally target the innocent). It is never about the ends justifying the means; the means must be as pure as the end being sought. Despite the carnage inherent in war, the Church has taught that certain moral obligations must be maintained for a war to be just.

Instead of seeking to modify this traditional Catholic doctrine, the conference pushes for an encyclical advocating for nonviolence to replace just war theory entirely. The participants at the conference argue that there is no longer such a thing as just war and “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

Supporters of this theory claim that instead of limiting the conditions for war, just war theory has often been used to exacerbate conflict and provide a pretext for aggressive, interventionist actions. Of course, moral rules cannot be eliminated simply because they are ignored or abused at times; Church teaching explicitly rejects that type of consequentialism. Ultimately, they contend that war is not the solution to stopping conflicts of any type and that non-violent means have been used with great success throughout history to resolve conflicts and overturn oppression.

To this observer, the call to systematically dismantle just war theory when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has viciously butchered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Daesh is engaging in the ruthless slaughter of thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in territories they control sounds completely out of touch with reality.   

As US Secretary of State, John Kerry, proclaimed, Daesh is committing genocide. In the face of genocide, is now really the time to entirely rule out war to protect the innocent from such inhumane violence?

In addition, new evidence has emerged that Assad’s crimes in Syria are even worse than one might have imagined, despite years of evidence documenting his crimes against humanity.  There are approximately 600,000 pages of evidence now available that demonstrate the terror that Assad has inflicted upon his own people.  Beyond using chemical weapons and barrel bombs against citizens, hospitals were turned into torture chambers.  Stephen Rapp, the former chief prosecutor of the United Nations court handling the Rwandan genocide, told the New Yorker: “When the day of justice arrives, we’ll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg.”

Assad has broken international norms and laws; he has committed terrible offenses against his own people.  The Catholic tradition teaches that we must protect our neighbor, including using force as a last resort. Can we really say that at no point during these years of atrocities that we did not reach last resort? Was it truly never just to engage in armed intervention to protect those slaughtered, displaced, and tortured?  The Catholic Church teaches that the protection of others is a duty:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

The best examples of armed humanitarian intervention are those in Kosovo and Bosnia during the 1990s, where intervention halted horrible atrocities and saved countless lives.  Additionally, there have been successful armed interventions in numerous other places, including Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone.  The world rightly looks back with deep regret that it did not do what was necessary to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

If a doctrine of nonviolence is adopted as official Church teaching, then under no circumstances can a call to arms ever be justified.  Not even intervention to stop the Holocaust in Europe during World War II could take place if absolute nonviolence becomes official Catholic doctrine.  St. Augustine and St. Thomas would both object to such a doctrine.

I must say that I do, in fact, admire the tradition of nonviolent peacebuilding that those who participated in the conference so strongly advocate.  Nevertheless, what those who advocate for a Catholic doctrine of nonviolence do not recognize is that nonviolent peace building can only begin when conditions are ripe for it.  Nonviolent action is almost always successful when there is a regime that will tolerate the nonviolent movement. It has shown no similar successes in the face of those willing to commit genocide. Integral to the strategy of nonviolent resistance is to shine a light on the gap between a regime’s liberal, humanistic, or democratic ideals and the ugly reality of repression; for certain regimes, such concerns are irrelevant, as they engage in atrocities with impunity and the state-run media portrays their actions however they wish.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights leaders in the US, despite the injustices perpetrated, were in societies governed by liberal democratic regimes that had entrenched norms and protections that allowed them to organize and engage in nonviolent activities.  Nonviolent peacebuilding in Rwanda could only begin after the violence of the genocide had ceased—after Paul Kagame’s forces attacked and defeated the organizers of the genocide. Even Gandhi and the Indian nonviolence movement benefited from the fact that Great Britain was a liberal democracy.

We need to also remember that the conflicts in Syria and Libya both started when peaceful movements marched for increased political and human rights—with the goals and the means of those who support nonviolence (including those at the recent conference)— and were murdered in the streets by the forces of Gaddafi and Assad.  From this example alone, it should be clear that nonviolent movements are not always effective in standing up against repressive dictatorial regimes. When wholesale slaughter begins, how could we possibly expect better results?

The proponents of a nonviolence doctrine fail to realize that they need a robust and reinvigorated just war theory because the goal of just war theory is peace!  Just war theory aims to create the conditions for genuine, durable peace at the end of conflict.  This is why Catholic intellectuals are working hard to integrate theories of Just Peace with just war theory.  They rightly argue that just war theory is too thin in the area outlining how we can create a lasting peace after war is over. Just Peace theorists are creating the tools necessary to ensure that once conflicts cease, that they never return.  They work to foster greater trust, cooperation, and interdependence between people in order to create the relationships necessary to prevent future outbreaks of violence.  These are all necessary building blocks of peace.

Pope Francis, when he visited Holocaust survivors, said “Never again, Lord, never again! Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man — created in your own image and likeness — was capable of doing.”  If Catholics are serious about “never again” then Catholicism cannot embrace nonviolence alone and dismiss just war theory.   Catholicism cannot abandon the duty to protect others from the barbaric or genocidal acts of oppressive regimes.  Just war theory ought to be revitalized for conflict in the 21st century—efforts to integrate peacebuilding are great first steps towards doing this—but it ought not to be dismantled.